In the Gospel, the Lord calls Satan the prince of this world. We hear this formula so often that we tend to misunderstand its meaning, which leads us to ascribe to Satan more power than he has in reality. The cause of this misconception is the shades of meaning that sometimes do not come through in the translation of the Scripture into Russian. So what does the word “prince” mean?
We addressed this question to Archpriest Dmitry Yurevich, head of the department of Biblical Studies at Saint Petersburg Religious Academy.
In the Gospel of John, we find the following passage referring to Satan as the prince of this world: “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out (John 12:31).” In John 14:30, we read: “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me.” Likewise, Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians reads: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,
in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.”
All these passages are about Satan, ruler of the demons who used to be angels, but took the side of darkness, despised God and fell away from Him. If we interpreted the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul literally, we might conclude that Satan is ruling the world in which we live, and he is pulling the strings.
In common understanding, a ruler or prince is an individual who controls the territory, commands an army, occupies the throne by the right of inheritance, and has the authority to execute or imprison those who rebel against him. In other words, we refer to a feudal lord of the middle ages, who, in those times, was more a military leader than an absolute ruler. The Slavs called them princes, the Scandinavians Kronungs, the Turks pashas, but the meaning was generally the same. They were referring to a legitimate authority with the power to enforce their will. This is perhaps what comes to our mind as we read in the Scripture about Satan as the ruler of the world,
and leads us to misinterpret the Scripture. At the root of this misunderstanding is an important nuance lost in the translation. As we know, the Gospel of John and Paul’s epistles were written in Greek. The Greek word translated as “prince” has the root “arche,” which means “elder” and is present in modern words such as “archpriest”, “anarchy”, or “archive”. The true meaning of the word in the Greek original is “elder”, and hence “archive”, a derivative from this root, refers to a collection of old texts.
But who was an elder? He was a man of authority, to whom others listened and followed his advice or instructions. An elder has power over others, but it is not based on force, but the universal belief in his knowledge and competence. We can also refer to him as an informal leader.
The Gospel refers to Satan by this name, elder. What should we take it to mean? It means that Satan is a deceiver and tempter, with an ambition to lead others. In literal understanding, he is a demagogue, a leader of the masses. In his evil-doing, he does not rely on his power but uses people as his proxies.
As Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians (6:12), “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Referring to the exercise of power, Paul uses a different term, “rulers”. Again, the original Greek word does not refer to all rulers, but only to rulers of the darkness, and their power does not extend beyond its limits.
Reflecting on evil in human societies, Saint Maxim the Confessor, a 7th-century theologian from Byzantine, remarked that the devil would be powerless to do anything to people if he were not acting through the agency of people. The devil is a cunning manipulator. He does not bring people to obey him through his power, or witchcraft. People obey him voluntarily when tempted to do evil. As Saint Maxim the Confessor explained in his commentaries on the writings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, When disposed towards evil, we often give the enemy the space to attack us, deriving our power in ourselves and using it against ourselves. But the enemy becomes powerless when we do not give in and rely on God’s help, which is at hand. We use against ourselves the power that we derive within us!
If so, the power of the enemy is exaggerated. It does not rest in his capabilities, legitimacy or brutal force. He uses the power that we allow him to have. We do not obey him out of fear of his punishment, but only when we give in to his deception. We take his side because we consider it profitable or convenient, or because we choose not to notice his deceit or not to believe in his existence.
A deep believer who lives by the Gospel prays for God’s help and partakes in the sacraments of the Church is immune to the power of the devil. To him, he is not a prince, but an impostor. True power belongs to God, the Creator of all things. It is not of this world. We may not notice this power amid the iniquities and troubles of the world, but that does not make it any less real. It is a power to which we pledge our obedience every day when we say these lines from the Lord’s prayer: “may Your will be done on earth as in heaven.”
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds